Theta oscillations support the interface between language and memory

Yi Pu*, Douglas Cheyne, Yanan Sun, Blake W. Johnson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    24 Citations (Scopus)
    25 Downloads (Pure)


    Recent evidence shows that hippocampal theta oscillations, usually linked to memory and navigation, are also observed during online language processing, suggesting a shared neurophysiological mechanism between language and memory. However, it remains to be established what specific roles hippocampal theta oscillations may play in language, and whether and how theta mediates the communication between the hippocampus and the perisylvian cortical areas, generally thought to support language processing. With whole-head magnetoencephalographic (MEG) recordings, the present study investigated these questions with two experiments. Using a violation paradigm, extensively used for studying neural underpinnings of different aspects of linguistic processing, we found increased theta power (4–8 ​Hz) in the hippocampal formation, when participants read a semantically incorrect vs. correct sentence ending. Such a pattern of results was replicated using different sentence stimuli in another cohort of participants. Importantly, no significant hippocampal theta power increase was found when participants read a semantically correct but syntactically incorrect sentence ending vs. a correct sentence ending. These findings may suggest that hippocampal theta oscillations are specifically linked to lexical-semantic related processing, and not general information processing in sentence reading. Furthermore, we found significantly transient theta phase coupling between the hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus, a hub area of the cortical network for language comprehension. This transient theta phase coupling may provide an important channel that links the memory and language systems for the generation of sentence meaning. Overall, these findings help specify the role of hippocampal theta in language, and provide a novel neurophysiological mechanism at the network level that may support the interface between memory and language.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number116782
    Pages (from-to)1-12
    Number of pages12
    Early online date8 Apr 2020
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2020

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • hippocampus
    • theta oscillations
    • online sentence reading
    • magnetoencephalography (MEG)


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